Of all the foolish phrases uttered before and after Britain’s decision to quit the European Union, the most unfortunate must be ‘Empire 2.0’.
This, apparently, is how some in Whitehall view post-Brexit strategy: freed from the stifling embrace of its near neighbours in Europe, so the theory goes, Britain will be able to turn once more to the far-flung nations where once it used to rule, bequeathing them the English language, the Westminster parliamentary system and the English system of common law. ‘Empire 2.0’ was almost certainly meant as an ironic quip, but this example of British humour has gone down exceedingly badly with the countries Britain needs to woo.
Led by India, whose economy is already larger than Britain’s in purchasing power parity (PPP) terms, Commonwealth members have hastened to point out to nostalgic Brexit voters in the UK that the world has changed. If these voters imagine that somehow the clock can be wound back to the first half of the 20th century, when British manufacturers had a protected market in the dominions for products that were often lacking in quality, they are in for the rudest of shocks.
Many of the same voters supported Brexit because they wanted to return to a homogenous society in which not only the recent influx from eastern Europe would be excluded, but also those who arrived in earlier decades from the former empire. In calling an election to secure her own mandate, Theresa May has abandoned many of the rash pledges made in the 2015 poll by her predecessor as Prime Minister, David Cameron, but has clung to one of the most senseless of all: setting an arbitrary target of 100,000 for annual net migration into Britain.
This figure seeks to appeal precisely to those who fail to understand Britain’s place in the world. Though politicians cannot resist being photographed in high-visibility vests while visiting manufacturing plants, the country’s strengths actually lie in services, which account for more than three quarters of GDP. These are knowledge-based industries, which rely on the free exchange of ideas and talented people: how that accords with a net migration target seemingly based on nothing more than being a nice round figure passes all understanding.
But that is just one example of the carelessness with which Britain’s governing elite is approaching the future. As the Labour peer, Lord Desai, pointed out at a recent Democracy Forum seminar (see the report elsewhere in this issue), after Cameron decided to hold a referendum on EU membership, there was no planning for a decision to leave. The result bounced him from office and soon afterwards from Parliament, leaving British politics in turmoil. Boris Johnson, who led the Brexit campaign, was as surprised as Cameron at the result, but ended up as Foreign Secretary, from which position, while electioneering, he contrived to offend Sikhs at a gurdwara by suggesting that they help to promote Scotch whisky exports to India.
Such clownish insensitivity is one matter. More serious is the aggressive tone taken towards the EU during the election campaign. May sought to persuade the electorate that a decisive parliamentary majority would somehow strengthen Britain’s negotiating position with Brussels, even suggesting that ‘no deal’ would be better than a ‘bad deal’. To most this was a staggering miscalculation of the relative strengths of the two parties to the negotiation, starting with the fact that so much investment in Britain, particularly from Asia, is not due to the glories of the imperial past, but because of access to the European single market.
One can only hope that with a large majority in the House of Commons, May would be persuaded to find another Foreign Secretary, ignore the more chauvinistic elements in her party and seek to make the best of what otherwise risks being the most self-destructive choice in recent British history. It will take a great deal of effort simply to limit the damage to the country’s economy, and allay the concerns of those who voted to remain in the EU – the majority in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Never mind ‘Empire 2.0’. Badly handled, Brexit could lead to the breakup of Britain.